Robert Dale Parker

Nov 25, 2020

Robert Dale Parker on Jane Johnston Schoolcraft

Great Books Series

New Books Network 2020

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft is the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, the first known Indian poet, and the first known poet to write poems in a Native American language. A poet who wrote in at least two languages, navigated several cultures and expressed her pride of belonging to the Ojibwe (Chippewa) people in both English and Ojibwe poems, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft invites us to reconsider existing categories for understanding American and American Indian literacy.

Schoolcraft (her English name) or Bamewawagezhikaquay (her Ojibwe name, meaning “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky”), was born as one of eight children in 1800 in Sault Ste. Marie in today’s state of Michigan, then a cross-cultural hub of British, French, Canadian and American Indian influence. Her mother, Ozhaguscodaywayquay, was born in Chequamegon in the mid 1770s in the northern part of what is now Wisconsin as the daughter of Waubojeeg, a renowned Ojibwe warrior and chief also known for his skills in story-telling and son; her Irish-born father, John Johnston was a fur trader who greatly valued books. Jane was educated at home, reading widely and speaking and writing Ojibwe, English and French, with a brief and difficult interlude with an aunt in Ireland where she might have attended school. In 1823 she married Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), who has become known as the first person to record a large body of American Indian stories.

They had three children but their first-born, William Henry, died at age two, and one daughter was stillborn. With Jane’s assistance Henry published The Literary Voyager or Muzzenyegun, which included some of Jane’s writings without attribution. When Jane died unexpectedly in 1842, she had written literary prose pieces and poems, only a small number of which had appeared in a handwritten magazine produced by her husband.

I spoke with Professor Robert Dale Parker of the University of Illinois, who discovered, edited and published Jane Johnston Schoolcraft's poetry in The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, as well as Changing is not Vanishing: A Collection of American Indian Poetry to 1930, in addition to books on Faulkner, and on critical theory. We talked about the ambiguous status of being "the first," about Native American poetry, about Jane's life, and about several of her moving, searing and strangely timely poems.

Her beautiful poem, "Sweet Willy," was recorded in a gorgeous rendition by Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith; they graciously granted permission to use this song here to bring Schoolcraft's poetry to an ever wider audience.

** "Sweet Willy, My Boy · Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith ·

John Johnston: His Life and Times in the Fur Trade Era

℗ 2005 Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith

Released on: 2005-01-01

(Song consent to be used on "Think About It Podcast" by Dave Stanaway and Susan Askwith on November 25th, 2020 by email to Ulrich Baer) **

Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Speaking of…” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email ucb1@nyu.edu; Twitter @UliBaer.

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Uli Baer

Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Speaking of…” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email ucb1@nyu.edu; Twitter @UliBaer.

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